Food, Water, and... Permaculture? Rethinking Disaster Relief for Haiti and Beyond

. Creating a tiered retaining wall to prevent erosion (L) and a permaculture plan for a demonstration farm (R) in Haiti.

When most people think of disaster relief efforts, meeting immediate needs -- food, clean water, blankets -- comes most readily to mind. But as Haiti continues to recover from the devastating earthquake that struck near its capital city of Port-Au-Prince almost two months ago, a growing number of environmentalists are re-envisioning "disaster relief" as something that can provide hope for the future, not just a hot meal and somewhere to sleep. Their tool of choice? Permaculture.

"Without a doubt resources and expertise are moving en mass to Haiti, but beyond this temporary relief, what will sustain this nation of 10 million people when it's left in an even poorer position than ever before?" writes Gaiapunk, the editor of the Punk Rock Permaculture E-zine. "This is where permaculture design comes in, with an adaptable and ever evolving tool kit that can be of vital assistance in disaster relief and the long recovery period to follow."

Permaculture In War Zones and Disaster Areas
Permaculture, short for "permanent agriculture," is a way of designing and maintaining "agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems." That might sound a little hippie-dippy, but its essence of working with what the land offers and using everything it produces is profoundly practical, as Gaiapunk's short history of the technique's deployment in war zones and disaster areas shows.

In Kosovo in 1999, permaculturists set up a large camp for war refugees that included a water-capturing system, passive-solar strawbale buildings, gardens to provide food, and composting toilets to safely and productively process waste. And during the early-'90s oil embargo in Cuba, Australian permaculture experts traveled to the Caribbean island and helped set up market gardens, worker cooperatives, and public transportation. "Little to no pesticides or fertilizers were employed, and catastrophic famine was avoided," Gaiapunk writes. "This partnership has continued to be highly successful and now some of the most experienced urban permaculture experts in the world come from Cuba."

Healing The Landscape And Providing Livelihoods
Geoff Lawton of the Australian Permaculture Research Institute recently spoke to about the possibilities for permaculture projects in Haiti to help "rehabilitate the landscape and provide sustainable livelihoods," especially much-needed local food production:

In Port-au-Prince, there are many solutions that can emerge, including the restructuring of built infrastructure in a way that creates hard-surface water runoff aimed at productive urban gardens; creating a microclimate through the recycling and redesign of the landscape; and implementing biological cleaning of urban grey- and blackwater waste.

In a country where natural resources and biodiversity were already dangerously depleted before the earthquake, Lawton says, "getting a fast result would be a powerful way to inspire local people to extend and replicate the permaculture model." He suggests identifying some suitable water-harvesting areas at high points in watersheds so the basic force of gravity can be used to bring irrigation and nutrient flow to poor-quality growing lands.

Composting Toilets: A Solution For Sanitation, Food Security
Another one of Lawton's suggestions, creating high-quality compost out of organic waste for growing food and medicinal plants, was the focus of efforts started before the earthquake, but is even more crucial in its wake. Even before the January quake, CNN reported that "UNICEF estimates that 70 percent of Haitians do not have access to 'safe drinking water and adequate sanitation,'" a problem only compounded after the disaster. In addition, a severe lack forest cover makes the land extremely vulnerable to erosion and topsoil loss.

Two American women profiled by CNN looked at those two problems and saw one solution: poop.

Rebuilding, Regenerating, And Boosting Resilience
Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell, the founders of Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), have been working in Haiti to improve both sanitation and agriculture by installing composting toilets that reduce water contamination and provide high-quality fertilizer for farmers. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the former is an even more urgent need, while the second offers some hope for Haiti's future recovery.

"I know that the idea of surviving this disaster is like a miracle and then the idea of Haiti being able to climb up from a place so dark seems too distant to contemplate," blogger Nika at Humble Garden writes. "Once the person is out of immediate danger and is left standing with nothing, no assets, nothing but other survivors around them, they need to find a way to rebuild, regenerate, and boost their resilience so that they become embedded in a community that provides current and future needs." Permaculture, it seems, could be an important part of that effort.

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Food, Water, and... Permaculture? Rethinking Disaster Relief for Haiti and Beyond
A growing number of environmentalists are re-envisioning 'disaster relief' as something that can provide hope for the future, not just a hot meal and somewhere to sleep. Their tool of choice? Permaculture.

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